In 2014, the local Anderson South Carolina Veterans Administration Clinic closed its doors to their counseling services for a group of veterans with PTSD issues. Up until its last day, the program was highly effective due to the talent and understanding of the local VA staff. Veterans were cut off from a critical lifeline and left with a shattered support network.
Over the next several months, the orphaned group found ways to do what any veteran learns. They found a way to keep moving forward. There were three key milestones that lead to the basis of today's "Vets Helping Vets Anderson". Each of the fourteen was committed to the group’s long-term survival. Second, the group formed a relationship with the Anderson South Carolina Elks Club who welcomed them and provided a meeting place second to none. The third and most important milestone was a decision by the original fourteen that to sustain Vets Helping Vets, any veteran with an honorable discharge would be welcomed with open arms. Today, any honorably discharged veteran is welcomed regardless of rank, branch of service, military experience, or history. Today, Vets Helping Vets is a tight knit group of veterans representing World War II up to Iraq and Afghanistan.
About 110 to 120 veterans attend our weekly Wednesday morning meetings. As you can imagine, most are Vietnam era veterans, but our ranks are growing with veterans from all mid-east conflicts.
Our meetings are like no other veteran's group meetings. Yes, we eat donuts, drink coffee, and tell great jokes focusing on our neighbor's branch of service. But most importantly, we honor our name: Vets Helping Vets. We look out for each other. We have each other's back. When one of us trips or falls, another one picks up their rucksack and helps them through whatever issue they are experiencing.
Our meetings have six simple rules: no politics, no religion (however, we do close our meeting with a prayer from our Chaplin), no cussing, no blood and guts war stories, respect for whoever is speaking, and, most importantly, whatever is said in the meeting room stays in the meeting room. Our dress is simple - our black t-shirts with our logo and a veteran's cap. No Brasso and no spit-shine. Our only military relics are our experiences. We offer camaraderie, close friendships and, most of all, respect and help.
What kinds of "help" you may wonder. We focus on veterans in the organization on an as-needed basis. We also target donations to wider reaching veteran organizations that focus on certain needs and can show an extremely low expense ratio. That is, veteran-focused organizations that can put a remarkably high percentage of their income directly into a veteran's hands. We follow that guideline also. We are a totally volunteer organization. We find ways of getting our treasury directly to veterans. One exception - the Wednesday morning coffee and donuts. We “pass the hat” for that essential piece of our fellowship. We maintain yards for our sick, handicapped, or aged members. We build access ramps for our vets that can no longer handle stairs. We run errands for our aged members. We make donations towards service dogs for members. One of our members donated a kidney to another member and we financially helped them with expenses not covered by insurance. Many members staff the local American Legion Honor Guard for local veteran funerals. We donate funds to members with unusual emergency needs or assistance with long term care issues.
If you are an honorably discharged veteran living in upstate South Carolina or adjoining Georgia areas, you are very welcome to join us.
Just remember, Wednesday, 9:30 a.m. at the Anderson Elks Club at 225 McGee Road. You will need proof of your military service such as a copy of your DD 214, or your VA Identification card, or your state ID or driver’s license that includes your veteran status endorsement. It doesn't matter what your rank or what you did or where you served while in service to the United States. When you come through the entry door, you are a Veteran, and we welcome you home!
We also have a group for combat veterans that meets every Monday. Its membership is only combat veterans, and it is solely for the support of combat veterans, aka grunts. This Vets Helping Vets group requires a copy of your DD 214 that shows a combat MOS with corresponding service ribbons and deployments. The group does not offer professional services. However, it does offer that special brotherhood built on the experiences of others who, like you, survived combat and its long term effects. If you feel this need, here is a very effective way to build a bond with veterans who have walked your same path, both in combat and after their service. They still walk the path, but it’s not as challenging for them now.
If you wish more information on this group, please read the “Combat Veterans” section below then please call Jesse at 864-245-0181.
Dealing with the wounds of war is not an easy thing. Most, simply, do not understand. Others don’t even want to take the time to understand. Still more, just want to push it all to the side as if none of this ever happened.
I deal with PTSD like many of the men I will be seeing tonight. This is real. As real as it gets. And many of the men you will see in this story have a similar tale to tell.
I walk into this small “man cave” on the property of one of the members of Vets Helping Vets. The first impression I get is one of busyness. It’s almost too much to take in on one visit. Yet I look around this room…a room filled with tables, chairs, coffee pot and other items and I find myself doing something that I have done for years…finding a place to sit where my back is not facing the entryways. I see the two doors that give access to the room. I decide which would be my quickest escape route should I need to leave the room in a hurry. I do this practically everywhere I go…restaurants, doctors’ offices, the mall. I even do this at home.
Unbeknownst to the others, I begin to observe them as they enter the room. Small talk is exchanged, handshakes and hugs are shared, jokes and insults are laughed about. There is a sense of joy in the room, but even more pervasive is the underlying sense of tension I feel. You see, these men are all combat veterans with a story they have carried most of their lives. We are all here for the same reasons…unity, comradery, and healing. That sensation of tension also creeps in because you never know what is going to be said, what you may have to relive, or deal with at this ninety-minute meeting.
If nothing else, honesty will be on full display at these meetings.
Here’s a note about honesty in a place like this…no one cares whether you like it or not. The honesty found in this isolated place is like honesty found nowhere else. Honesty is medicine.
This is not your garden variety counselling session. You can cuss if you need to, you can remain silent if that is your wish. Just don’t try to fool these men with false claims. They know the drill.
I look at each man as he seeks a place like mine…protected, near someone he has grown to trust.
The colors in the room are the next thing that really captivate me. I’m not speaking of the colors of the room itself, but the colors of the men themselves and the colors they wear. This room is made up of men from all nationalities, races, and creeds. Their colors tell their stories without one even knowing it. However, the colors that stand out the most are the colors found in their unit patches, their combat awards, and the different shades of grey in their hair, beards, and mustaches.
Some enter the room, moving very well and with ease. Others come in bearing the ravages of time, combat, and the burdens, wounds and scars they bear. Each man in this room has a tattoo. Some are on the outside, visible for all to see. The biggest and most profound though are found on their hearts and minds. These you cannot always see, but when you can, they display a message that few can understand. These tattoos are not like those on the outside. Most of these tattoos look more like something a young child would draw…many colors, many shapes and activity everywhere that resembles nothing easily identifiable. These tattoos are their wartime experiences, where chaos, death and destruction were the rule of the day. Unlike their tattoos that spread across their outer bodies, the heart and mind tattoos can never be removed. They will be carried to their graves with them and are only visible when the veteran chooses to display them.
I observe the colors of their awards and decorations. These are outward, visible, and proudly displayed. I see the color Silver…the color of Jump Wings and our Nation’s third highest award, the Silver Star. These belong to a special breed of man. A man few can fully understand. I see the color Purple…belonging to those who were injured during combat operations, their scars still on display to this day. These scars become conversation starters for these men. A wound that never heals yet hides a mystery to understanding this man.
I see the Black, White, and Gold of the 101st Airborne Division, sitting right next to the Red, White, and Blue of the 82nd Airborne Division. I glance to my right, and I see the Red and Gold of the Proud United States Marine Corps. Seated just across the room are the colors of Blue and White, representing the United States Air Force. In the back, I sit with the colors of Tan and Black, presenting the United States Army Special Forces. My gaze continues around the room, in awe and amazement. I see Bronze. Bronze is a special color for veterans. It identifies a veteran’s efforts on the battlefield, often with repeated awards. There’s the Bronze Star, awarded for Valor and the Bronze stars attached to their Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
Being in a room like this, with men of this caliber, always begs the question, “Do I really belong here? What have I done that even comes close to comparing with others around this room?”
That feeling is quickly dispelled as we all stand and recite the “Pledge of Allegiance.” It is in looking at “Old Glory” and proudly stating the words of the Pledge, that everyman in attendance realizes that yes, he does belong in this group.
The meeting opens when a Vietnam combat veteran, proudly wearing his 101st Airborne Division hat, welcomes everyone. Each has a chance to speak, and most do speak. Others choose to sit silently and take it all in. Either choice is fine. Speaking is what really matters. Everyone is a member of the Brotherhood, and an absence would make the group incomplete. When someone speaks, it shows the others that he has their back.
The discussions in this environment are passionate. We are changed men. Never again will we venture back to the fields we once walked before our days in combat zones. You can’t. It’s physically and mentally impossible. You cannot “unsee” what these men have seen and continue to see every night of their lives. Combat paints pictures upon our souls that are eternal.
Yet these men come to the Monday Night Meeting willingly. These stories they share take them back to that very moment in time when all this pain and suffering began. They are teenagers once again or men in their early twenties or even thirties. Nonetheless, they are somehow transported back in time…to a time when innocence was lost for them.
So, what is the Monday Night Meeting of combat veterans and veterans with PTSD all about?
If you are a combat veteran, it’s about your personal journey.
You are on a journey and sometimes you need the companionship of a trusted friend or loved one to simply hold your hand and walk silently with you.
You may be on a journey leading you them to a place like ours. A place where you can find comradery and hope.
You may be on a journey and sometimes that journey demands that you walk alone. Yet you are not alone, even when you appear to be. Like them, you may be carrying a lot of men around with you. You rucksack may be full of memories of days long past. Don’t try to remove that rucksack. That will only lead to a bad situation. Are you ready to take off your rucksack? When you are ready, this group of combat vets can give you a hand in carrying your heavy load. It’s a journey you too, won’t soon forget.